Trial to pay farmers to protect soil and hedgerows in post-Brexit subsidy shift

Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

Hundreds of farmers will be paid to take care of parts of the countryside such as hedgerows or soil this year as part of a trial announced by the Government.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the sustainable farm incentives, part of the programme to replace the EU subsidy scheme, will be financially attractive so it will be “a no-brainer” for farmers to sign up.

He told the National Farmers’ Union’s annual conference that the policy will be about supporting the choices farmers make for their own holdings.

It is hoped hundreds of farmers will join the pilot scheme, which allows them to choose from a range of standards for landscape features such as grassland, hedgerows, water, woodland and soil, to protect nature and tackle climate change.

Quizzed during a press conference on whether people should eat less meat and dairy to curb climate change, Mr Eustice said it is “much more complicated” than looking at the greenhouse gas emissions per head of livestock.

“What we actually need to do is to rethink our whole system of farming, because the way we raise livestock can actually reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from that livestock,” he said, pointing to feed additives or well-managed pasture with trees in the landscape that can cut pollutants.

Mr Eustice also said the Government is developing a scheme to incentivise farmers to implement holistic plans for animal health and welfare on their farms, as well as payments for measures such as more free-range systems.

And he said that, while the Government has brought in legal requirements to ensure public sector food procurement looks at a range of issues which boost buying British, he will be examining the issue as it is open for the UK to go further outside the EU.

Concerns have been raised about funding for future farming payments, with the old subsidies, based on the amount of land farmed, set to be cut by 50% by 2024, and the replacement environmental land management scheme will only be fully rolled out at the end of that year.

Mr Eustice said the early version of the sustainable farming incentive, which forms part of the scheme, will be launched in mid-2022 and expanded over time.

“The key is making it attractive enough financially so that it becomes a no-brainer to join us and that’s exactly what we intend to do,” he told the press conference

And he said: “Every farmer, whether they recognise it or not, does have environmental natural assets on their home.

“And we want to pay them and reward them for managing those assets in the right way.”

NFU president Minette Batters said there is “enormous enthusiasm” for the sustainable farming incentive scheme, but farmers want to see details of the policy and its delivery, and it is absolutely essential to get it right.

Sir Keir Starmer, making the first speech to the conference by a Labour leader for 13 years, said the Government had “dithered and delayed” over introducing the new system of farm payments.

He added that 76% of farmers are worried that the Government’s new schemes will not be sufficient to keep them afloat and warned “the Government needs to get a grip on this, review it fast, and provide the certainty and security that farmers need”.

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